Dairy Farmers of America Chairman Randy Mooney, left, stands with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, right.
Dairy Farmers of America Chairman Randy Mooney, left, stands with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, right.

Immigration reform could help ease the economic loss of the farm bill not being passed, according to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Vilsack says that having a farm bill is the most important political legislation for agriculture. He adds that the failure to pass the farm bill was a blow.

“The second thing that agriculture needs is a stable and secure workforce," Vilsack told those attending a forum in Kansas City, Mo., last week.

Approximately 1.1 million people work directly in agriculture.

"The reality is that many of them, and maybe even a majority, are undocumented and have been for a considerable period of time,” Vilsack said.

“We have a broken immigration system ― of that, I don’t think there is any dispute,” he said. “We need to do something about that. Because we are now beginning to see in America crops, products, not being grazed, not being grown, not being harvested because we have an inadequate workforce.”

Vilsack pointed out that the state of Georgia recently analyzed the effect of having an insufficient and unstable workforce in agriculture. In Georgia, $390 million of economic opportunity was lost along with 3,000 jobs not being filled because farmers couldn't find a workforce to harvest crops.

Problems are similar in the western half of the U.S. where producers are seeing the workforce migrating out of their area.

The dairy industry has been impacted.

“In South Carolina recently, a dairy producer announced the inability to continue his workforce, because he was not assured of a stable and secure workforce," Vilsack said. "Lost opportunity, lost jobs, that’s the consequences of a broken system.”

The "Gang of Eight proposal" is seeking to fix that broken system. An amendment to the bill went before the Senate on Monday and passed by a vote of 67 to 27, but it remains to be seen if it will make it through Congress.

Vilsack said the bill will offer pathways to citizenship for those who have worked in agriculture and will also stabilize the workforce through the guest worker system.

"This bill is not just pro-agriculture, it's pro-growth," he said. "History tells us when you have comprehensive immigration that works, our economy grows."

Randy Mooney, chairman of Dairy Farmers of America, the nation’s largest dairy cooperative, also spoke at the forum and he reiterated the points made by Vilsack.

"We need Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform," Mooney said. "For the dairy industry ― an industry where there is no such thing as a day off ― there is no viable visa program to provide a legal, stable and knowledgeable workforce that ensures milk and other nutritious dairy products get into the dairy case, our lunch programs and more."

"Without immigration reform, we’re making it more difficult for farmers to harvest their crops," he said.